O'Grady's departure 'best thing for Limerick' - Moran
Published 09/08/2014 | 02:30
"I'd sleep with my hurleys before I'd sleep with my girlfriend, you know!" – Dave Clarke, '95
Limerick, always a passion-play. They stand inside a 41-year-old bubble now, numbed by our appetite for arithmetic. Age-old prejudice depicts them as some kind of green threshing machine, rolling up out of Munster, all dust-clouds and splintering timber. Cliché tells us they won't be backing down tomorrow. They never do.
Yet, when Donal O'Grady walked away last April and TJ Ryan turned to Kilmallock for a replacement, a few old stereotypes seemed reinforced. The Corkman had been trying to siphon some of the randomness out of Limerick's hurling and, by the time he left, much of the squad was pulling against him.
They felt an excess of tactics inhibited their natural flow, so the arrival of Dave Clarke seemed to register as a restorative statement. Ryan and Clarke were two old soldiers of the team that lost the finals of '94 and '96. They understood the heat Limerick needed to find to feel alive.
A heat some others see as weakness.
There is an implicit condescension throughout hurling towards men whose careers fall short of All-Ireland class and, right now, Limerick feel the breeze of it.
If Tipperary, Cork or Kilkenny won a quarter-final by 24 points, the whole country would surely ring with the sounds of breathlessness. But Limerick putting Wexford to the sword somehow became a story of one team's fatigue just facilitating another's good fortune.
Every Limerick compliment seems to be delivered from behind a sheet of Plexiglass then. This week, the talk has been of recent big days in Croke Park that broke their hearts. Like the final of '07, Kilkenny blowing them out of the water in 10 pitiless minutes; like the semi-final of '09 and Tipp hitting them like a funnel cloud convulsing a trailer park; like Clare last August.
The big stage tends to bring Limerick's worries bubbling up like toxins in the earth.
Yet, they come to the big house again, united, strong and palpably comfortable within their own skin. The word on the grapevine is that they will give Kilkenny "a rattle." But who is to say they won't do more?
When O'Grady departed as a gesture of displeasure with the county board, maybe Ryan's decision not to follow articulated more than he will ever be willing to convey in words. The conflict seemed a little over-arched and silly and, accordingly, true to a familiar fashion in the county.
Players heard the news the night of the National League semi-finals and, pointedly, all but disregarded it.
From the outside, people read the row as Limerick simply lurching back towards some kind of natural condition. But, within the dressing-room, it seemed to represent nothing more than a passing squall.
Limerick have since won a Munster championship game against Tipp in Thurles for the first time since '73, pushed Cork all the way in an emotive last Munster final at the old Pairc Ui Chaoimh and, well, then inflicted what they did on Wexford.
How have they gone about it?
On quarter-final day, their puck-out strategy was clearly designed to put pressure on half-backs, Eoin Moore and Ciaran Kenny. They flooded the defensive channels too when Wexford had possession, thereby isolating their opponents' most dangerous attacker – Conor McDonald.
By any measure, the performance married real hurling smarts to that noted physicality. Yet, still, the popular depiction of Limerick was one-dimensional.
Stephen Lucey suspects that every judgement about the team now is framed in that same historical perspective. "I know there's been a lot of talk about that among the players," agrees the former dual star. "The Wexford result was perceived more as Limerick getting a handy win, almost being dismissed.
"It certainly wasn't being put up there in the way it might have been for, say, Kilkenny or Tipp. But I guess, if you take it over the last 15 or 20 years, we haven't been achieving enough or winning titles. It's only in the last two to three years that that has started to happen, but the respect or kudos that normally come with that to other teams is a bit slower in reaching Limerick for some reason.
"Still the players can use that as a motivating factor because, ultimately, winning an All-Ireland is what's driving them."
Winning an All-Ireland ... something only the men of '73 have achieved for Limerick since World War Two was still clearing its throat. There are even those who will quibble that they beat a half-dressed Kilkenny that year, a team that snapped back immediately to take them handily in '74.
So in terms of perception, Limerick still play into the teeth of a gale here.
Had their year petered out timidly, the loss of O'Grady would – undoubtedly – have been recycled as an act of carelessness. Now? Well Ryan looks to have dealt with the disruption nervelessly.
Ollie Moran is loath to start beating drums for a team staring into the whites of Kilkenny eyes, yet the former All Star is unequivocal in his view that Limerick are now, at least, playing a game that is true to themselves.
"Maybe Donal didn't see much potential in Limerick," he says of O'Grady's departure. "I don't know did he not believe in the team ... But, personally, I think it's probably the best thing that ever happened, because I don't think that Limerick were ever going to achieve anything playing the style of game that Donal O'Grady had them playing.
"I just think it was completely against the grain in Limerick and it wasn't an appealing game from a spectator point of view either. When you're with a group of players like that, you need to understand – especially in Limerick – that there are certain traits you've got to bring to the table.
"You can see it in Cork's game at the moment, their old, traditional style is back. And, whether you like to acknowledge it or not, Limerick's is a game that's been built around passion, a high work rate, an intensity. I don't think the game we were playing with Donal O'Grady was ever conducive to that.
"TJ would have appreciated that better than anyone, having played that game and been one of the best proponents of it when he was in his prime."
Moran (right) sees the key to Ryan's success thus far as a willingness then to follow the John Allen template of last year. In other words, play facilitator to strong personalities within the Limerick dressing-room.
"I think TJ recognised there was a very strong dynamic within the group already," suggests Moran. "He could see they were a very strong bunch, very united, who'd been on the road together for a few years now.
"TJ knows enough about Limerick hurling too to understand that guys have to be played in their best positions. It didn't need a revolution, it just needed tweaking. Of course he brings passion and all the rest of it, but, at this level, there must be more to it than that."
Seamus Hickey's deployment at corner-back has been a revelation whilst the combination of James Ryan and Paul Browne in midfield looks, arguably, the best in the country just now. In attack, only Kevin Downes has been struggling for form, yet looks eminently capable of wreaking destruction if he finds it.
There is a sense of solidity to this Limerick story then, a narrative buttressed by the recent college and club successes of Ardscoil Ris and Na Piarsaigh respectively. "Young players these days don't seem to have any inhibitions," says Lucey. "They're not afraid, they play with more abandon."
Factor in an accepted wisdom that, as they age, Kilkenny's greats have begun drifting back towards the pack and tomorrow tingles with intrigue. That said, nobody doubts that Limerick must start strong or risk suffering the age-old consequences.
Moran believes they will have to strike a balance between boldness and common sense.
"You can't be ultra-defensive against Kilkenny, that just becomes counter-productive," he says. "Because that's giving them the latitude to dominate further out the field and, at some point, they're going to find ways of getting past you or picking you off from outside.
"There's no doubting Limerick's ability to compete physically and a lot of pundits are making that point. But I think that's maybe being slightly disingenuous to the team too. They're not giving Limerick the credit they deserve for being a good hurling team.
"And, definitely, Kilkenny are no longer being viewed as this extraordinary force. Look they're still – pound for pound – probably the best team in the country, but now a lot of counties see them as being within reach.
"There's maybe an element of uncertainty about them this year. Now you're saying that recognising they've won the league and reclaimed Leinster, that they look a good deal better than they were last summer. But teams don't have the same fear of them that maybe they once had.
"But, like I say, you suggest that knowing you could be eating your words on Sunday evening. This is Kilkenny!"
Lucey believes that Limerick work best when riding a "wave of emotion" from their supporters. This time last year, they put those same supporters into a deep sleep. They need, he believes, to put early scores on the board tomorrow. To quickly engage their people.
So, is this team ready to break new boundaries?
"I believe so," says Moran. "Going back to my own time, I would say that we had a certain inferiority complex and that translated into inconsistency. But this team is different. Like, at the end of the day, Limerick are a top three or four team in the country now, there's no disputing that.
"Beating Kilkenny would be a huge step forward, but it'll count for nothing unless they cross the Rubicon and win the All-Ireland. They're acutely aware of that too.
"I think they've gone well beyond moral victories now."